Shelter Girl

fairyhome
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Chareen Ibraheem

I hoped to say goodbye to it in 2015. But the year ended and I was still here.

So many factors revolve around being homeless. I can look at the factors all day long, and we as a society can engage and look at the factors all day long. But the truth of the matter is I can only look at myself.

I was always uneasy with looking at myself in the mirror, even as a child. But I find it even harder to do now. I may glance at myself for a minute to make sure my cornrows are neat and well kept, but when I look in the mirror—I mean really look in the mirror—I see the embarrassment of the adult I’ve become. I see an embarrassment to the little girl I was, who grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, New York. I haven’t been fair to the little girl who loved to create, create something, and create anything that would lead her away from the harsh reality of the projects. Her imagination was her key to unlock her way out, her creativity the strength to push open the door. To a world of possibilities, or so she thought.

I’m watching myself in the mirror, standing over a sink and trying to squeeze enough water out of my washcloth to quickly wash before someone in the church (where I will stay tonight out of the cold) needs to come in. I monitor the door and try to finish up, and I think about how I got to this point in my life. Especially with two college degrees. I didn’t think an A.S. in Theater and a B.A. in English were so great, but down here where I am located, it’s like a prize just to finish high school.

Someone bangs on the door and curses that they need to use the bathroom. Sighing, I turn off the water, dry off, and put fresh clothes on (especially underwear, since they’re scarce around here for women). Opening the door, I walk past a young guy who is looking at me all angry. I ignore him as I walk over to my mat, squinting my eyes in the semi-darkness. On several other mats, some people are whispering in conversation, others cough, and some have settled down for the night.

I finally spot my mat that has a small red blanket on it, and my heart soars with relief, thankful to be indoors from the cold. Except for the hardness of the mat, it’s okay. It’s much better than sitting in an airport, hospital, or stairway building all night. Removing my dirty sneakers that already have holes formed in them, I step onto the mat and lie on it, but not before trying to find a comfortable spot. When I do, I adjust my now-dirty cross bag like a pillow and lay my head on it.

Immediately my mind starts to wander back to a time—eight years ago, in another state—when I sat at a bar in a strip club. I don’t want to go there; I often pray I don’t. I fight hard to move on from that chapter of my life as well as other chapters, but the human brain is fascinating at recapturing things you don’t want to remember.

•••

This was not my first time being met with homelessness. You’d think after years of knocking on doors for jobs, jobs in my field, any kind of jobs, I would be settled by now. But, it hasn’t worked that way. I’ve run around town, dressed in my best interview clothes, and talked in my proper professional etiquette, and I’ve had years of experience working in corporate office setting. How many closed doors in one’s face can one take? No criminal background, no drugs, no illegal history of any kind. That would hinder me to getting that “dream” job that I dreamed since I was a child. Timing? Maybe. Years of inquiring, and still knocking, honing skills needed the best as I could.

I was weary. I fell into a deep dark depression, and I couldn’t see my way out of it. Usually I could, but this time, it was like a black hole that sucked me in deeper each day. Destructive habits were starting to resurface, ones I had long tried to suppress, work on, or pray about. But they found a way back, a door open, and a trigger. Growing up in a family full of destructive habits, it was easy to fall into the same pattern.

Not able to meet a motel room I stayed in briefly, I headed down to the local city shelter. It was place that was surrounded by all kinds of people that were destructive on many levels. Strangely enough, I felt at home. I felt a kind of high being there. This was my first time in one. Feeling alone and abandoned by family, church, and friends, I didn’t care. Old thoughts of sexual abuse as well as other abuse I faced as a child kept popping up in my mind. Years of trying to “let it go” had not worked for me. Suddenly it was like a gulf overtaking me, the years of rejection gnawed at me.

I guess it made sense—I was just rejected by a guy I was semi-getting to know a few weeks ago. I felt the need to prove myself and show him I was what he wanted.

All around me I heard bits and pieces of conversation about local strip clubs in the area. The idea to feel beautiful and sexy at the same time and become every man’s fantasy was alluring. Not to mention, I heard if you were “good” at what you did, the money rolled in rather quickly. Naive to this, I didn’t understand all of what “good” meant.

A woman who was a former stripper said to me, “You’re not ready,” when I asked her about it. She briefly schooled me on the basics of the “business,” and the more she talked the more excited I became. It sounded like a glamorous lifestyle. I was feeling desperation and a need for attention from this guy, so I took what I wanted from our talk and ignored the rest. After all, it was only one night. What would it hurt? I had nothing to lose. I couldn’t get any lower than where I was.

I had heard about amateur night at this local club everyone knew about, where all you wear is a bikini and dance for money. Sitting at the bar, I watched a nude woman with stilettos on stage dance, surrounded by colored lights. I was mesmerized by how this woman boldly worked the pole, dancing in sync to the hip hop and R&B music, moving in time with the music. Men threw money gracelessly at her feet. Excitement building in my chest, I wanted to be like this woman, who was not only attractive but had men falling at her feet. I felt self-conscious about my apparel: no bikini, but jeans and sneakers. Not to mention my puffed-out relaxer and slight odor from not being able to use the showers at the shelter that day.

I turned towards the bar and ordered a Hennessey and Coke. I took a sip, enjoying the way it tasted on my tongue. I wasn’t a drinker, but this was what I needed. As I sipped my drink, I causally chatted with a guy who sat next to me. I held onto my drink and watched him carefully. He encouraged me to get up on stage and said I could do it.

Insecurity settled on me like a familiar blanket, and I again scanned the room to see women in bikinis and thongs handing out drinks to guys at the tables. Their hair and makeup fixed in sexy styles, neatly done, they skillfully walked in stilettos. I kept wondering what was I doing there. These women were gorgeous. They had an art to dancing and working the pole that I would never master, I thought.

I ordered another Hennessey and Coke. I felt like I was inside a dream, a hazy dream. The pulse of the music sounded out sexual and raunchy things to be done. Time was going by quickly. I wanted desperately for the guy to call me back and say, “Shorty, I am on my way.” (He always called me shorty). But in the whole hour, his phone just kept ringing and going to voicemail. Left messages. No answer. Glancing at the door now and then, I still expected him to walk through the door. I was frustrated and hurt. I stopped calling. I imagined he must be laughing at me with his chick. Taking another sip, it went down my throat easily again.

A couple of drinks later, I felt myself loosen up as I relaxed and waited for them to call us new girls to the stage. All the while I felt myself falling into a deeper depression. If this was it for me, I at least wanted to enjoy the night. Death was on my mind. I felt it all around me. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to live anymore. Consumed with my thoughts as I listened to the music, a loud voice snapped me out of it.

“IT’S AMATEUR NIGHT LADIES! TO THE STAGE!” I looked up at a short guy with a booming voice. The guy in the seat next to me waved me on and winked. I grinned slightly at him. The music was lowered a bit. My favorite song by rapper TI—”You Could Do Whatever You Like”—was playing.

I asked the female bartender, “Is it time?”

My head felt woozy as my heart beat against my chest. I steadied myself on the bar stool.

“Yeah,” she said eyeing me briefly, before she gave the guy next to me a quick glance. I quickly jumped off the seat and followed behind a group of girls to a back room. I noticed everyone else had their bikinis on, and I didn’t have anything.

“Here.” A girl threw a bikini set to me. It landed easily in my hands. “Keep it.” Nodding, I rushed to the bathroom and tried to wash myself.

Doing the best I could with a small piece of soap and paper towels, afterwards I changed into the bikini, so small the thong part showed my butt cheeks. I guess this was supposed to be the desired effect. Adrenaline pumped through my veins—just the excitement of it was like drug.

Before I hit the stage, I tried to straighten out my semi-afro with my fingers and some water. I really wished I had found someone at the shelter to cornrow my hair for me. For free. Glancing at myself one last time, I looked down at my shoes. Church shoes, it looked like, with a heel. Not cool. But this was all I had. Everyone said it was okay. It was just “amateur” night. This was to see if they really wanted to keep you.

“Okay, ladies, let’s go!” a woman said outside the bathroom.

I took a deep breath, walked out, and headed to the stage with the other girls. At first, I danced with the other girls as a group, my nerves and fears getting the best of me.

It was different from what I had imagined. When it was my turn, I danced solo. My name was “Candy, and as I danced, I felt some money hit my leg and foot. Pleased, I kept moving until my turn was up.

Backstage, the lady who worked at the club grabbed my arm and said, “You gotta fix yourself up more, then you’ll have a chance.” I nodded and went to change. I knew I shouldn’t, but the wheels in my mind kept spinning as to who I could find to do my hair and coach me some more.

It was an early October morning and dark outside. I prepared to stay in the club until daylight when a big, built guy with glasses appeared in front of me and asked if I needed a ride. “Sure, thanks,” I said, uncomfortable.

“Come on.” He waved me outside. I followed as I tried to push away the advice the lady at the shelter gave me a few days ago.

I hopped in the black Jeep and slammed the door. He made small talk along the way. His car swerved the car a bit as we rode down the dark road. “I liked your dancing,” he said, taking turns eyeing me and the road.

I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in him at all. I laughed, smiled, and flirted a bit to try to buy time.

“You live around here?”

“No.” I shrugged my shoulders coolly. “With a friend downtown.” I held tight to the twenty-five dollars he threw at me on stage.

“I really liked what I saw. You’re sexy,” he said, staring at me in the dark car as we sat waiting for the light to change. We were almost downtown. My heart was doing flip-flops. I was for this ride to be over.

“Let me give you my number,” he said.

“Yeah, let me get it,” I said calmly, with a giggle in my voice.

We were finally downtown, and he quickly wrote down his number. “Call me.”

“I will.”

“Let me get a hug, shorty.” Expectation still lingered in his eyes.

I moved over and hugged him, and he squeezed as he hugged me. Smiling, I told him, “I’ll call you.”

We moved away from each other and I quickly grabbed the handle and got out of the Jeep. With one finally smile and a wave, I walked away quickly around the comer. Leaning against a wall, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I waited for my breathing to return to normal. Then I opened my eyes and walked the few steps towards Landmark Diner, my favorite diner. I went inside and ordered my favorite meal.

As I ate, I thought about the events that took place. I was happy I had tried this new thing. A surge of excitement passed through me as I quickly pulled out my phone and redialed the guy again.

He picked up. “I see you’re answering your phone now,” I told him. I was nervous about what he would say next.

“What happened?” he asked a little too calmly. I went over the details with him. We stayed on the phone briefly because most of the time I was jotting down information he was giving me. He seemed impressed by my “attempt” at stripping so far and gave me a club to go to the next day and he said he would meet there. Although I was doubtful he would, my hopes still soared. This one would at least be closer to the shelter downtown.

I left the diner and headed back to the shelter. Things were busy as usual there, people trying to get help with getting placed, men standing outside looking for a hustle. People on in wheelchairs, drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes, women with children, women with baby daddies by their side. Impatient, sometimes grumpy, social workers.

I walked into the nearest bathroom ready to take a shower after getting a paper pass to do so. All that ran through my mind was getting ready for tonight. I’d find someone to do my hair to make it look halfway descent and find a sexier bikini this time and find someone to do my make-up. The excitement was building, the attention, the need to make more money, the glamor of it all.

I was about to step into the shower when, all of the sudden, I fell. My right ankle slammed against the floor hard. Not noticing the pool of water in front of me, I started to get up when the ankle or leg couldn’t hold me and I fell to the ground again. I cursed aloud, and I saw my right ankle begin to swell.

A lady who came in the bathroom, said, “Don’t move, honey. Someone gonna call the ambulance.”

She rushed out the bathroom. I sat there silently in shock, upset. My plans to self-destruct weren’t exactly working out as I had hoped. All I thought about was the guy I wanted to impress and how I wanted to be in his arms again. Really be in his arms, not some quick trip seeing me at a hotel room and that was it. I wanted to be his ride-or-die chick. I wanted to have his baby—I told him many times.

But I guess that wasn’t going to be. These thoughts went all around me, and that was more devastating than that my dreams of becoming a dancer were over.

I didn’t hear from the guy anymore. And when I did call, it was brief and or voicemail or a female who answered.

I wanted to die. I wondered why God had let me live. I hated my life. Not only was I homeless, but I was in a boot, walking around in crutches. I was reduced to nothing; the women in the shelter called me “Crutch.” What‘s up, Crutch?, You doin okay, Crutch? or Go, Crutch, as I struggled down the hall.

•••

As time went on, I stayed at different shelters for my ankle to heal—in the snow, rain and sleet at times—going out, to get clothes, documents needed, as well as information. That all basically led to nowhere. I was worn out, tired, hurt and confused.

People didn’t understand—that I would expect them to—that I wasn’t just homeless to be homeless. It was a reason behind it. I was struggling in life to get my life together. I was thankful I wasn’t in a corner of a shelter, rocking back and forth in a seat talking to myself, or receiving disability, or waiting for it to come, or waiting on child support. Or drug addicted. These were real problems to the shelter system people.

Not some woman who was clearly educated and so they thought she was trying to take advantage of the system. What was I to do when I pushed myself for years to get a better job more stability?

I still was with family until now. I don’t know, but maybe it wasn’t important. Maybe it wasn’t a big thing that my grandmother lived in a senior building, and for years the manager has been harassing me and her because the only people are supposed to be there are seniors. It doesn’t matter if I help her or go shopping for her, and still look for work and a place to stay for myself. It doesn’t matter that each day, I am on my grind. Doing what I have to do. Doesn’t matter that they threaten her if I continue to stay overnight with her. Where I have to try to sneak in and out just to have a place to stay. And after a while I am told I have to leave.

I guess it doesn’t matter or mean anything that I can’t stay with my mom in the projects I grew up in because the front door always locks to keep drug dealers and users out. And the only people who have the key are the people on the lease. Maybe it doesn’t matter that my mom has kicked me out of her apartment (if did get inside) and cursed me out and yelled at me and has physically put her hands on me.

Maybe that doesn’t matter to people because I am a grown woman and should be on my own. Not their problem. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the rest of my family doesn’t care. Again not their problem. I don’t know.

Maybe it doesn’t matter that I’ve traveled to another place to make a better life for myself and people seem kind at first, but then there is no money rolling in from you, and they tell you to leave. Or you return to their place at after looking for work all day and you can’t get in the house, or the key they gave you doesn’t work.

But in order get “help” from one of the shelter programs, you have to be literally homeless. If that was the case, then why couldn’t I get help when I was sitting in a chair in the airport, or sitting in the city hospital all night, or sitting in a stairwell of a building hoping no one would catch me just so I could be off the streets for the night? Then to go back to the local woman’s shelter to shower and eat lunch, but at three p.m., I have to leave, only to do this all over again until the shelter program for the week at a church opens up. Where I can lay on a floor on a mat. It wouldn’t bug me so much if I wasn’t still dealing with this right now in my life.

Yes, I am still dealing with this.

I am grinding every day to find work, more than temp that I’ve done many years now so I can at least secure a steady place to stay of my very own. I have to catch myself many times.

That child that once dreamed in the projects of Brooklyn still resurfaces a lot especially times like this. I have to tell that child, you’re an adult now—stop fantasizing about winning that Oscar and having your favorite actor by your side as you receive it. I try not to think about how I want to complete this novel I’ve tried to work on for years so I can make my grandmother proud. That how she took care of me most of the time was not in vain. I try to tell that little girl on a day like today when depression sets in, and I know she’s crying inside of me thinking about the abuse she suffered and the physical violence she witnessed and experienced. I tend to her for a minute—just for a minute—because if not she’ll want to live in the past and this is not the time or day to be stuck in the past.

This is not for people to feel sorry for me. I don’t like that. It’s to know and try to understand that not all homeless people are the same. But as I’ve sat, eaten, and slept with the homeless, I see that I have things in common with the women. The need to be loved and cared for, broken pain now and in the past, needing to get our lives together.

The only difference is I can say I am here because of God. No other reason. Why, I don’t know. But all I can do is stay on my grind one day at a time and hopefully make something wonderful happen out of all this pain and suffering. Maybe.

•••

CHAREEN IBRAHEEM is a writer living in Portsmouth, Virginia.

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Go That Way, Very Fast. If Something Gets In Your Way, Turn.

chippedhouse
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Erica S. Brath

I was on my way home from a writers’ conference. I was about to get on the highway when I noticed it was a three-lane parking lot. So I kept going, That’s when the GPS started freaking out, trying to turn me around. I put my turn signal on, until I realized it was taking me back to where I’d started.

“No! I will not turn around. I will not go back.” I was white knuckled, jerking my father’s pickup truck around unfamiliar roads in the middle of Ohio. I clicked off the screen, tossed the phone in the console, and started looking for a place to pull over to consult a map.

“Damn it. I fucking hate Ohio!” I screamed in frustration as no shoulder wide enough to keep a Dodge Ram safe from passing traffic appeared.

I’ve been in these situations before, unsure of where I am, just driving forward, fear growing in the pit of my stomach. It rises to just below my ribcage and sits, nagging, anxiety pushing my pulse higher no matter how many times I count to ten.

“When you find yourself in a situation that causes you stress, take a moment to stop, find your center and breathe,” the yoga instructors always say, calm, peaceful, so fucking Zen you want to push them over and hit up a pastry shop.

Which may be why I have never actually been able to find that rock-solid island in the middle of adrenaline- and coffee-fueled chaos.

But for some reason, as I started to feel the blood pounding behind my eyeballs, I simply stopped. Not literally, because I was still cruising through cow-infested verdant fields of summer green, dotted now and then with absolutely adorable farmhouses, many with hearse-like black buggies next to cherubic boys in dark pants, white shirts and wide-brimmed hats, standing like tiny undertakers all in a row.

But for a single, blissed-out moment I didn’t care if I was lost, or where I was going. The truck said I was going east. That was good enough for me, because I needed to be in Ithaca, New York.

The fields sped by in my peripheral vision. Farmhouses, barns, buggies all started to look the same; I worried I was just going around in circles. I thought about life: Just because the scenery changes doesn’t mean you’re going forward. Or anywhere at all.

Was I going anywhere? What the hell was I doing anyway?

•••

I’d spent nearly a decade taking dozens of road trips with my husband, Sean. We’d driven between Pennsylvania and Virginia more times than I could remember, the most epic when we headed south pulling a newly-purchased twenty-nine-foot travel trailer. This was before either one of us had smart phones―maps and calls to my mother-in-law had to suffice for directions or information on where to get a half-decent cup of coffee―and well before our best efforts at making a life together imploded.

Now, he was in Philadelphia in a full-blown crash and burn―the countless calls and text messages I’d received over the course of the conference confirmed that. He was broke, out of work, homeless, and battling addiction. He blamed me, his mother, and anyone else who, in his mind, had let him down over the course of his life.

I know the fairytale grown-up world I thought existed when I was in my teens , where my―of course, British―rock star husband provides me with enough disposable income to chase whatever creative muse might flit by. I’m cool with working my ass off in conjunction with an equally driven partner. But that’s not how things had turned out.

We’d gone to hell and back during the recession, but we’d managed to finally eke out a somewhat decent existence. He’d returned to masonry with a small company outside Charlottesville, Virginia, and I had lucked into a job as a screenprinter—finally utilizing my BFA—after nearly a year working retail for eight dollars an hour. I’d also found an amazing group of creative, talented friends. I’d never imagined anywhere below the Mason-Dixon could feel like home, but it was tolerable, considering I was northeast born and bred.

“I can’t do what I want here,” he’d started saying from almost the moment we moved to C’ville. “No one here plays the kind of music I do.”

His musical talent is unmatched, so I was sympathetic. I don’t feel that way because I married him―I wouldn’t have married him had he been mediocre. Cold, yes, but if I were going to fully support his creativity, I had to believe in it. He was the real deal. I wanted to see him succeed.

“What do you want to do?” I asked with some trepidation when his misery finally reached a fever pitch three years into our foray in the south.

“I need to move back north.”

He’d made several weeks-long trips to Philadelphia that year to practice and play with his band, which consisted of the same guys he’d been in a previous band with before I met him. He’d handed me their CD shortly after we met―I put it in my car’s player knowing that if it sucked I’d have to break up with him. They were amazing, with the kind of chemistry that doesn’t come around often.

“Well, so, what do you want to do?” I repeated. “What’s your plan?”

It seemed straightforward enough: He’d move back to Philly, where we’d met and lived before the recession kicked us south. I’d stay in Cville and continue working, providing a steady stream of income, stability, and health insurance. He’d get settled, and then I’d pick up stakes and move north.

It fell apart almost from the get-go. He said he couldn’t hold it together without me, and he sank into addiction. I found myself repelled by his neediness. I saw my life with him as a trap. So instead I moved further north. It wasn’t a plan so much as a reaction.

•••

I felt like an asshole, like I’d somehow abandoned him. The guilt still burned red hot as I navigated the winding Ohio roads a full year after he’d packed up a rented van and driven north, away from our cramped, aged camper and onto a completely different life. He wasn’t my kid, he wasn’t a child—he was a full-grown man who refused to take responsibility for his actions. His mother and I had spent countless days and dollars to keep him afloat until it became obvious no amount of assistance would ever be enough. Yet I still felt like a jerk, and I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t know if the guilt would ever go away.

And I was sad. I knew in my heart that, in the end, we’d go our separate ways, but it’s not that I didn’t care about him. It didn’t stop me from feeling paralyzed, plodding through life’s motions under a heavy weight. It felt like just another failure, another way I’d managed to veer off life’s path, whatever that was supposed to be.

In many ways the hardest part was the external judgment, which just added to my uncertainty about what I was doing, or should be doing, or should have done. It was almost like the second Sean fell down, those around me headed my way with knives out. They’d been holding back, barely, their disdain, but all bets were off. I found myself putting up walls, forcing my own disdain at what had been, so completely, my life, as if by swearing it off I could convince the world—and those around me—I wasn’t like him.

“I always knew he was bad,” they’d say. “What were you thinking?”

And I’d nod my head in agreement—“Yeah, what was I thinking?”—afraid that if I defended him, they’d judge me harshly, too.

Thing is, he wasn’t actually a bad person. He may have looked like your typical bad boy, and he most certainly embodied the stereotypical rock and roll persona. He was tall, thin, his body angled in sharp lines from hard living and hard labor. He smoked like a chimney, swore off whiskey and the rages it put him into, and sported one—intentionally—amateurish tattoo: a skull and crossbones with the words “fuck off.” He was wholly, unabashedly, loudly uncouth. But he was also a voracious reader and a constant questioner of the kinds of things most people just accepted as fact, which the journalist in me found a kinship with.

When the financial sector collapsed and everyone I knew turned their backs while we struggled, we only had each other to rely on. Losing my ally, my—albeit damaged—champion was like another floor dropping out. He may have been alive in the corporeal sense, but I wasn’t sure the real Sean was ever coming back. And if I waited to find out? How many second chances could I give him before it was too late? I hated myself for even thinking this way, and I hated him.

He’d dropped out of school at sixteen, lived wherever he could find a place to lay his head and was, for the most part, married to music, his second wife. I was his third. Drugs were, and always had been, his first.

•••

I wasn’t sure about moving north, but winter was coming fast and the camper was falling apart. I had to make a decision. I had family in Ithaca, but for all intents and purposes I was broke and alone, save for my two terriers. I was forty-four, not a single possession worth calling my own. Even my own truck, which I’d left for my dad to drive if needed when I headed to Ohio, was a slap in the face: I had a car I loved somewhere along the east coast, which I’d been forced to leave after its water pump quit. Sean was supposed to drive from Philly to Virginia to get it after I moved, and we’d trade in the spring―I’d headed north driving what had been our tow vehicle, our Behemoth, a ’97 Suburban. I had no idea where my car was, or whose dubious possession it might be in, along with the rest of my belongings. So I was limited to very local trips considering the advanced age and state of disrepair of the tow beast.

Which is how I wound up driving more than four hundred miles each way to Ohio in my father’s pickup. I’d attempted to rent a car, but was turned away when it was discovered I was a nomadic ne’er do well.

“My dad’s going to pay for everything,” I said sheepishly, handing over my driver’s license at the rental counter. I was, after all, well beyond the age of my father paying for anything. But he’d offered, and I was in no financial situation to say no. I’d taken a part-time job in Ithaca with the same chain store that had plucked me from jobless perdition in Virginia just to make sure I didn’t go without work. But the pay and hours provided little more than spare change in the adult world I had once been accustomed to living in.

I’d spent thousands of dollars on this particular car rental company; I had no reason to think there would be a problem. They’d gained my loyalty when the engine of my Volkswagen Golf self-destructed in 2010, melting to a puddle of oily, metallic goo on the side of Route 495 in Delaware, leaving me, Sean, and our puppy stranded as traffic zoomed by. Their gimmick was they’d come get you. We’d needed a car. I’d wound up renting from them for well over a month.

So it was a shock when they rejected me.

“If you don’t have a major credit card, we need proof of income and residence,” the woman behind the counter said. “And you’ll have to pay for everything yourself. No one else can pay for you.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked, still not comprehending the situation. “Why can’t he just rent the car and add me on as a second driver?”

“Because we need the same information from all drivers, so even if you’re a second driver and you don’t have a major credit card, you still need to prove income and residence.”

My cheeks grew hot, my pulse started to race, and my favorite feeling―enraged embarrassment―took over. I could prove my pittance of an income but not residence. I hadn’t had an actual, legal address in years. By federal law, even as a full-time RVer, I was considered homeless.

“This is outright discrimination,” I stated, digging my fingernails into my palm. “I do not have proof of residence, and why, exactly, do you need proof of income?”

As if I didn’t know: Because if you’re on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, you’re a lazy, shiftless thief. Because people without credit cards don’t work. Because being chosen to hold credit certifies you are an actual citizen in the eyes of the rest of society. That’s what matters―money. Anyone who doesn’t have it is scum and banned from normal activities. Like renting a car to attend a conference. Because lazy impoverished scumbags don’t go to conferences. They’re too busy collecting welfare and doing drugs.

It makes even the strongest-willed person want to crumble. Which is why I can almost understand Sean’s compulsion to numb himself no matter the consequences. Almost.

It’s no secret: I bought into the lie that as an educated person I deserved to live a life of comfort, free from things like being turned away when trying to rent a car. But the life I’ve lived and its choices—some made by me, some hoisted upon me—have shown me that there’s really no escaping the mess that is life.

But I was neither a total failure nor the victim, but something in-between. I loathed working retail and the pittance I earned, but I also hated working seventy-hour weeks in uncomfortable shoes so some CEO could feel impressive and buy something else. I’d been given the chance, an existential Scrooge story in reverse, to decide what, exactly, had to change. Would I keep pushing forward until I found my way? And if it all went to shit, if the traffic stopped moving, was I agile enough to veer off and figure it out without crashing again?

I figured I needed to find the fine line between living in the moment and looking at the long-term ramifications of what I was doing. I’d been cruising along for decades, certain I’d always find another on-ramp and everything would work out for the best. There’s merit in that approach, but also some nasty potholes. Getting hitched in the basement of a bland, brick apartment complex with no witnesses and celebrating afterward with a cup of Dunkin Donuts might have been a place to start thinking about the path I’d been on. But I hadn’t. I needed to find balance. I dreaded becoming stuck, but the other option—full-on hedonism—was also something I couldn’t even bear witness to, let alone indulge.

With the conference behind me, and its amazing writers inspiring me to just get to fucking work, I had to accept I was alone, wandering on the eastern edge of the Midwest. The guilt, the hurt, and the anger still burned in my gut, and probably always would. But was anyone else’s happiness my responsibility? Was it okay to put myself, my ambitions, first?

I’d been taking the most circuitous routes my entire life, but they were mine. I owned them. The writing conference was just another start, a way to meet people like me, wake the muse up and keep going. It wasn’t fucking up so much as it was just life. Could I cut myself some slack? Should I? And more importantly, could I stop feeling sorry for myself and everyone else and do what needed to be done?

“Aha!” I hollered as I spied a sign for the highway. I could see it off to my left, cars and semis flying along. “So there!” I exclaimed, slapping the wheel in triumph, shaking off the melancholy.

•••

ERICA S. BRATH is a non-fiction writer currently living in Ithaca, New York. She works as a graphic designer and editor, and has written for publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, and Men’s Health. She is currently working on a nonfiction book detailing her experience living full-time in a travel trailer during the Great Recession. Her website is esbrath.com.

Read more FGP essays by Erica S. Brath.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

newman
Lesléa and her mother, Florence

By Lesléa Newman

A slim, tattered volume of verse with a dark stain on its gold cover is one of my most prized possessions. The book is called Poems for the Little Ones, written by Edie Scobie and published in 1925. The poems in it are rather dreadful:

I’ve dot a lovely dolly

Her name is Violet May

I always take her wiv me

When I go out to play.

It’s not what’s in the book that I treasure; it’s the book itself, which I received from my mother for my eighth birthday. When I opened it, I learned that my mother had also received the same volume for her eighth birthday. Given by her brother, my uncle Arthur, who was eleven years older than my mother, it is inscribed:

To Florence, from Arthur

January 25, 1935

A foundation stone for your future literary castle

Like me, my mother always knew that she wanted to be a writer. Unlike me, her dream never came true.

Even though I always knew in the back of my mind that my mother had once had literary aspirations, I didn’t think much about it. Growing up, my mother was just my mother: the person who put food in front of me, told me to clean my room, and took me shopping for school clothes every fall. When I became a teenager, my mother was someone to fight with about my short skirts, my long hair, and my militant vegetarian eating habits. As a young woman/budding feminist, I saw my stay-at-home mom as the symbol of everything there was to rebel against. And as a not-so-young woman, I relegated my mother to the sidelines of my life as I pursued my goal of being an author.

Though we always mentioned my writing career during our brief, once-a-month phone calls, my mother didn’t know the whole story. I sent home copies of my books that I knew she’d enjoy and could show off to her friends: picture books like Where Is Bear?, Skunk’s Spring Surprise, A Sweet Passover, and Runaway Dreidel! I did not send home books of mine that I knew she’d find upsetting, the thinly disguised autobiographical novels, short story and poetry collections: Nobody’s Mother, The Reluctant Daughter, Secrets, Jailbait, Just Like a Woman, Pillow Talk. These books starred the same protagonist (though she went by different names) who at various times struggled with an eating disorder, found herself in abusive relationships with men, came out as a lesbian, and always viewed her mother with an unforgiving disdain.

More of my books were published, more years went by, and then my mother got sick. She collapsed on a cruise ship and had to be airlifted to a hospital where she remained on life support for ten days. I flew across the country and remained at her side until she was well enough to come home. For hours on end I sat in her hospital room watching her sleep and contemplating our relationship. Our lack of closeness was something that I had always found extremely painful. And I had always blamed my mother for it. But of course it wasn’t all her fault. What could I do to bring us closer? I decided, though it was rather late in the game, to extend the hand of friendship and try to get to know her better.

A month after my mother was settled back home, I went to visit her. After lunch, I peppered her with questions. I wanted to know about her life as a young woman, if she’d dated anyone before she met my father, and whatever happened to her “future literary castle”?

“It’s not important,” my mother said, dismissing my questions with a wave of one manicured hand. Then she changed the subject. “Do you believe all this rain we’ve been having lately? Well, at least it isn’t snow.”

Since my mother was not forthcoming (to say the least) I called my “aunt” Phyllis, who had been my mother’s best friend since they were both ten.

“Oh, your mother was a very good writer,” Aunt Phyllis told me. “I still remember the story she published in Cargoes, Lincoln High School’s literary magazine.”

What? My mother had never told me she had written, let alone published a short story. Luckily my aunt never throws anything away and is very organized. Two days after we had this conversation, a copy of the story arrived in the mail.

I dropped everything and sat down to read, “M is for….” by Florence Levin.

All in all, it had been a pretty rotten day. If only I hadn’t shot my mouth off. It didn’t do any good. It never did. It only made things worse.

Whoa. My mother had written a thinly disguised autobiographical short story about shooting off her mouth? I read on. “Florence” is at the Sweet Shoppe where, “The rain poked an inquisitive finger through the doorway” and the “stool squealed in protest.” Florence, alone, and too upset to order a snack, watches the rain and remembers a recent fight she had with her mother. A huge fight that ends with the narrator thinking, “It’s a difficult thing to admit, even to oneself, that you hate your mother… ”

I had to put the pages down and ponder that sentence for a long time.

When I picked up the story again, it picked up with Florence remembering another recent fight she and her mother had:

“Look at her. She’s sitting there like a princess and I’m doing the dishes.”

“Please, momma. I’m doing my homework.”

“Oh so you’re doing your homework. So I suppose we’ll have to tiptoe around the house until you finish your homework. Pretty soon maybe we won’t be able to breathe if it disturbs you.”

“Oh, momma, please.”

“Oh momma, please. Oh momma, please again. A fine racket she’s got. She sits like a prima donna while I work until I’m ready to drop and nobody lifts a finger to help me….”

And the fight ends with Florence screaming words I had thought, but never dared to say aloud to my own mother: “I hate you, do you hear? I hate you! I hate you!”

Wow.

As Florence sits in the Sweet Shoppe alone with her memories, an “errant tear chased a freckle down [her] nose.” She studies photos pinned to a bulletin board of “Lincolnites” who are in the military and thinks of all the boys “over there” on Iwo Jima and in Germany.

I picked out the smiling face of my sergeant brother among the bevy of others…..Bob with his white teeth and broad shoulders. Bob who had set feminine hearts aflutter before the days of Tarawa: Before the mail stopped coming. Poor momma. It was such a long time between letters. She must be so terribly worried….

Why my mother chose to change her brother’s name but not her own remains a mystery to me. But no matter. The story ends with Florence coming to a new understanding of her mother.

I thought I had troubles. Troubles—why compared to momma—momma whose eyes had been reddened lately. Momma, who needed comfort so desperately lately. Momma, momma darling.

And as Florence comes to a better understanding of her mother, she suddenly realizes that she is hungry.

My mother’s story absolutely blew me away. It’s extremely well written for a high school student, full of sensory imagery, telling detail, authentic-sounding dialogue, and original metaphor. It makes good use of flashbacks. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Something happens. And in addition to literary merit, I was astonished by the similarities between my mother and her mother, and my mother and me.

Of course I had to telephone my mother right away. After we chatted a bit, I said, “Aunt Phyllis gave me a copy of Cargoes. I read your story.”

It got very quiet on the other end of the phone.

“It’s a wonderful story,” I went on. “You’ve got a lot of talent.”

More silence. And then my mother said, “Thank you.”

“So,” I said, going for a casual tone, “why didn’t you ever tell me about it?”

“I didn’t think it was important.”

“What else did you write?” I asked.

“I stopped writing after that.”

“Why?”

I could almost hear my mother shrug. “I didn’t see the need to pursue it.”

A thought occurred to me. “Did Grandma ever read the story?”

My mother paused. “She did.”

“What did she say when you showed it to her?”

“I didn’t show it to her. She found it. And she wasn’t pleased.”

I wondered if my mother could hear me nodding as I thought about what to say next. “You know, Mom,” I said, “I’ve written some stories similar to this one. Stories I’ve never showed you. Stories that might upset you.”

“So what?” my mother asked. “A lot of things upset me. Then I get over them.”

“Even stories about me and you?” I asked.

“Darling,” my mother said in a gentle voice, “don’t you know I’ve read everything you’ve written?”

“You have?” I asked, my heart pounding.

“Of course I have.”

“And?”

“And I think you’re a very fine writer.”

I started to cry. “But what about the stories where you and I—”

“It doesn’t matter.” My mother cut me off. “What matters is that you tell the truth. That’s what’s important.”

As I wept, it dawned on me: my grandmother must have said or done something to thwart my mother’s writing career. And my mother was not going to do the same thing to me.

“I love you, Mom,” was all I could say.

“I love you to pieces,” was how she answered.

From that point on, I showed my mother everything I wrote. She was generous with both praise and criticism. She had a good editor’s eye and often pointed out weaknesses in my writing that had slipped by me, the members of my writers group, my agent, and my editor.

Then she got sick again.

During my mother’s final hospital stay, she beckoned me to her bedside. “I’m giving you permission to write about all this,” she waved her hand around the room, “under one condition.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Promise me I’ll never have to read it.”

I promised.

After my mother died, I felt her presence most acutely while I was writing about her. My mother loved poetry, and I could feel her sitting beside me as I wrote sonnets, haiku, villanelles, and sestinas about her illness and death, and my own grief. Formal poetry provided the firm container I needed to hold my unwieldy grief. Two and a half years after my mother died, my book of poetry I Carry My Mother was published. As I held the first copy in my hand, I stared at the cover with its painting of red high heeled shoes (my mother loved shoes as much as I do) and my sorrow at being unable to show it to her was palpable. I like to think that wherever my mother is, somehow she knows that I made good on my promise. And that she is very proud.

•••

LESLÉA NEWMAN is the author of sixty-five books for readers of all ages including the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk, the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, and the children’s classic, Heather Has Two Mommies. A former poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, she currently teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Her newest poetry collection, I Carry My Mother, explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s illness and death and her own grief.

 

Reclaimed Ambition

aspen
By k rupp/ Flickr

By Antonia Malchik

You’d think, given Russia’s tumultuous history, the country would have a more dramatic landscape than the one it inherited. Its revolutions and massacres cry out for powerful mountains, like the Rockies that defined my childhood. Instead, its few sprawling cities trickle out into miles of taiga—boreal forests, the first obvious shift being groves of aspen trees quivering in that silvery way they have, flashing light from leaves in high summer. Watercolor paintings with a ubiquitous gray-pink winter sky and lone Russian Orthodox Church domes seem incomplete without the aspens. They are rooted in the allure of the country and its history, a culture in which poetry is pre-eminent and the past wrought hard with stoic endurance.

Aspens are communal. A grove of aspens is actually one organism, connected via an underground root system that sprouts from an individual seedling. These underground systems withstand the most devastating forest fires and regenerate with young seedlings—all genetic clones—that can grow up to three feet a year. While each tree itself might only live for a few decades, the entire root system can survive hundreds or even thousands of years—stands have been found in the American West that are tens of thousands of years old.

The analogy to Russia is hard to miss if you know something of the country’s history. Russian communities had traditionally worked as a collective, or mir, bound by a concept translated as “joint responsibility.” A community as a whole, not individuals or families, was responsible for things like tax payments and military conscription. Land was redistributed every now and then as families grew and shrank. The system had been in place for hundreds of years, long before America was formed, and functioned right up until it ran into the Bolshevik revolution. Mir wasn’t an idea formed by utopia-seeking philosophers; Russia’s “geographical vulnerability and agricultural marginality,” as one historian puts it, made joint responsibility a requirement for survival.

Like the mir, aspen trees thrive by virtue of their collective strength and resources.

•••

My Russian-born father told me (incorrectly, it turns out) that aspen wood was useless. He was visiting a few months after I had taken my first woodworking class, and I’d been getting a little obsessive about wood. More often found mixing bread dough in the kitchen or with head bent over a notebook, pen in hand, I’d recently begun using a drill and a sander and filling the back of my station wagon with abandoned stumps and branches dragged out of the woods. I’d been making three-legged tables and driftwood chairs, the sound of the orbital sander whining in my unprotected ears. I’d abandoned my usual flowing skirts in favor of jeans and tried applying a screeching, vibrating axle grinder to the innards of a cedar knot. (I had no idea making a rustic wooden bowl would be so violent.) I spent months making a table out of a solid block of maple, even now marveling at the beauty that emerged from the deep scars left by an indifferent sawmill, how its ripples and honey colors make me feel alive.

I’d lost myself sometime in the previous year. I’d grown numb, then tired, then depressed. My children’s demands crashed onto my head, crushing me into exhaustion as if I’d been sandbagged, and daily I stared out the windows, contemplating what their future would be in the face of climate change and epidemics of antibiotic-resistant superbugs and planetary chaos, wondering what the point was of trying to teach them to read, or forcing them to always say “please,” or denying them as much chocolate as they wanted.

I knew these thoughts weren’t healthy, much less helpful. I needed a distraction that would take me out of the house and require me to do something besides think too much. My head had taken over my life. Every day was split among my job as a freelance copy editor, the thousand fractured moments that came with caring for small children, and writing. Even my leisure time was taken up with books. Mothers like me often say that they’re drowning, but I wasn’t drowning; I was turning into some gaseous substance that moved through the ether, that existed but couldn’t feel. So I signed up for a rustic woodworking class hosted by the local nature museum at random because it sounded more enticing than lectures on birds. In that first class, I spent a day learning to make a chair using driftwood branches and a drill, and I got hooked. Over the next few months, woodworking started to drag me back down to the ground I’d always loved.

•••

My father and I had just dropped my son off at a part-time kindergarten surrounded by birch and aspen trees, and we were taking my daughter, Alex—or she was taking us—for a walk around the property before getting back in the car.

“It’s horrible now, looking at all this wood,” I told him. “I can’t just appreciate it anymore. I want to take it all home and make things with it.”

“Not with aspen.” He picked up one of the hundreds of limbs lying around and showed me: where it had broken off the tree, the branch’s guts were exposed. They looked like bundled fiber optic cable or a bag of spaghetti, except thicker. If you tried to cut it, it would crumble to pieces. Bound together, several branches would barely be strong enough to hold something up.

“It’s no good,” my father said. We walked up and down the driveway of the school’s property, Alex stopping to poke decaying leaves and swing her dinosaur umbrella around, narrating every step we took because she never, ever stopped talking.

“I wish we could do this more often,” I said. My father knew that I had never been a lonely sort of person. But I did get lonely for this: his company, walks and conversations, my family, my home, mountains and trees that nurtured and spoke to me and people who understood me, who laughed at my stupid, snarky jokes. He lived in Russia, back in his homeland, and I in New York, and we saw each other once a year at best, often only once every two years.

“You need more help,” he said, returning to our earlier conversation. I’d told him about feeling overwhelmed. I hadn’t mentioned that I was feeling numb and depressed and non-existent.

I’d told my older sister, though. She lived off in California with her three kids. My family was so widely scattered that it wasn’t even deserving of the word. My younger sister lived in Oregon, my mother in Montana, my in-laws in England, and, of course, my father in Russia. I had a few friends where we lived, but not a single one that I could call on for regular help in any but the most dire of emergencies.

“I know. What can I do, though?” We’d talked about my husband and me moving back to Montana. I didn’t know how much help it would give me in the mothering, the living, the feeling of non-existence, but I craved my home like drink, like the coldest, purest spring water that runs off the peaks no tourists ever venture to. I wanted to be there, closer—if not to every single family member then at least to the place we were mutually attached to.

•••

Aspen, I found out later, is actually widely used for random things you never think about—wooden matches and shredded paper packing material, for example, because it doesn’t burn as easily as other wood. It can be used in furniture but is hard to work because it’s soft and tends to shred or “fuzz” (to use a fancy woodworking term), can gum up equipment, and often refuses to take a finish or stain, although its softness makes it easy to shape. While it’s still used in areas of Russia for roofs, the wood has to be absolutely sound or it ends up rotting quickly.

The wood that my father and I picked up had been lying on the wet ground for a long time. It was decaying; we could pull it apart with our fingers. But its community would continue to thrive. Even when aspen trees are cut down, the root system keeps going, sending up multiple clones for every felled tree. Killing the roots requires girdling, a process of carving out a band of the bark, cambium, and phloem in a circle around the trunk. Girdling prevents nutrients from reaching the root system, which will eventually die.

I didn’t tell my father everything: that it wasn’t just parenthood and the lack of help. That my unmooring had a lot to do with how my writing ambitions had shipwrecked a couple of times, leaving me despairing for several months; how I then let the kids’ learning and nurturing slide into too much television and a reliance on packets of organic hot dogs. How useless I felt as a human being. I couldn’t tell him these things. Not when his parents had survived Stalin’s purges, when his father had made his way out of the Siege of Leningrad in the middle of the starvation winter, stumbling in the last stages of dysentery, when his mother had worked night shifts as a metallurgical engineer up in the Ural Mountains and then gone home to hoe potatoes and hunt for mushrooms and chop wood to keep her children alive. They’ve left so much to live up to.

I didn’t tell him how I’d started shying away from a particular shelf in our bookcases, where The Artist’s Way is kept, among other creativity/inspiration volumes of its kind. Memories of all those morning pages—three free-association pages handwritten immediately on waking, as sternly instructed in The Artist Way’s introduction—the weekly artist dates required, supposedly, to nurture my inner artist self, the facing of fears and claiming of goals, of throwing the doors of the inner self wide open to serendipity—they form a tender spot, a sore point, a wound.

My writing ambitions weren’t a secret from my father. I was one of those children who would write short story collections, in crayon on yellow legal pads, and bind them together with yarn and cardboard. In my twenties, I went off to an MFA program after two unproductive years as a journalist. And I worked really, really hard because hard work is the thing I’m best at. The harder I worked, the higher my ambitions became. I formed big dreams. Huge dreams. Dreams of many published books and attendance at notable conferences and magazine editors tapping out emails to me.

Dreams all out of proportion with what I wanted the rhythm of my life to feel like. The continued refusal of those dreams to come true infected my parenting, my friendships; they sucked the life out of all the little things I used to take pleasure in: cooking, making jam, weeding the herb garden, watching the heron fish at the pond next door, teaching my son math. I let those dreams define who I was, forgot what it meant to be a complete human being.

When I started woodworking, I hoped to find myself in the wood, or at least find a sense of groundedness in the physical labor. I started volunteering at a local hardwoods sawmill and became ravenous for information: why elm is so hard to mill and work (it twists and warps and its grain runs every which way), what black locust is used for (anything from artsy coasters to decking because it’s as hard as cement), what created that thin, black lacing—like a spare Picasso pencil drawing—in the sliced trunk of maple lying around (spalting, caused by fungus, which makes for beautiful furniture or bowls if caught early and dried thoroughly but makes the wood too weak to use if left to spread). I wanted to learn how to work with different woods, but I also wanted a metaphor for who I was. Secretly, I hankered to relate to maple, like the table I made after the scars were sanded down and the exposed beauty glossed with beeswax and almond oil.

Instead, the more I saw of the whole, beautiful hardwoods laid out under my sander or sliced open in eight-foot lengths on a Wood-Mizer mill, the more I felt crumbly inside, full of barely connected shreds. Like aspen. Prone to rot.

•••

“Leap, and the net will appear,” claims one of the paragraphs in The Artist’s Way, which has been a kind of writer’s bible for almost three decades now. “Pray to catch the bus, then run as fast as you can,” which I realize now simply translates to “Work really hard and hope for some luck.” Because the bus driver might be a jerk and refuse to stop, or you might trip and fall on the sidewalk, or someone will suddenly block your way.

Where is the space between acceptance and giving up? Between loving who you are and turning your back on hope?

Walking with my dad, I pondered these questions but didn’t speak them aloud. I loathed my own first-world myopia because I was in fact wallowing in the pain of unattained ambition, not fleeing chlorine gas attacks in Syria, or throwing myself around my child’s body while American drones dropped bombs over my Pakistani village. I had never even suffered the self-dissolving pain of miscarriage or infertility, as many of my friends had.

I should be grateful for what I have, do something actually useful with my life, like my father’s parents had managed to do even when faced with hardships that I can barely imagine.

I want to be better, I wished I could tell him. To be less ambitious, less desirous of recognition. To know throughout myself, not just intellectually, that the potentials I once dreamed of and haven’t reached do not mean I’ve failed. I have done many hard things in my life, but this feels like the hardest: To accept that my existence might never be like a shining block of silver maple carved into a work of art, or an oak tree that will last untold generations.

Separated from my family, from the very few friends I have and treasure, from the mountains and pine forests that formed me, my art, my creativity, feels all-consuming, the one thing that defines my structure and growth. Working with wood helped bring me back to earth. I felt made of flesh again, rather than of the ether. But the depression only started to lift when I redefined my ideas of success in terms of fulfillment because when I looked back over the previous few years, the memories that brought me pleasure had nothing to do with writing accomplishments. The memories that glowed for me were nearly all related to my family, to time spent with my far-flung community, and to hiking and walking, relating in earth-bound ways to the Earth I love so deeply: walking the high cliffs plunging into the ocean on Scotland’s Isle of Islay with my husband and in-laws, taking ten days off to help my overworked younger sister with her new baby, meals and conversations lasting well past midnight with my Russian relatives, trekking through the islands of St. Petersburg with my uncle, picking Montana huckleberries with my husband, laughing for hours in our giddy way with my sisters. My daughter retrieving her rain boots and umbrella and telling me firmly that she’s going out to “play with the rain.” My son reading a Little Bear story, stumbling but persistent, to his grandparents over Skype. My mother playing the guitar and singing one of her folk songs to my kids after we spent the night at her husband’s backcountry cabin, where the sheer weight of the unfiltered Milky Way made me realize how long I’ve lived under light pollution. That I’d forgotten how arresting the unshrouded night sky is.

The thrill of a magazine’s “yes” for an essay or an agent’s interest in one of my books burns out quickly and leaves no glow like these memories do. Only the act of writing itself comes close, reflects that slow crunch of my hiking boots over dry pine needles fallen on the mountains that are part of me.

In the same way I can work with wood slowly and honor its inner structure, I want to take my writing and transmute both the excitement inherent in success and the sting that comes with every failure. I want the whole process to take a more human scale, to become as creativity should be—not majestic or overwhelming or stunning, but nurturing to everything and everyone that surrounds it, part of the earthbound root system that keeps us alive.

Relating myself and my writing to aspen’s weakness and lack of inner beauty is not accepting a lower state of being. It’s part of a whole. And, when I am gone, my existence can still be worthy as shredded pulp to shelter my community or a matchstick to light a stranger’s way.

Like the members of a mir, like aspen groves, I need community. We all do, just as we need clean water and air, as we need to work and to laugh. To feel that we belong and that we have something worthwhile to contribute is necessary to human survival, a fact I had to lose myself to figure out.

•••

ANTONIA MALCHIK lives in upstate New York, where she sometimes blogs about wood and writing and parenting and philosophy on Pooplosophy. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and can be reached through her website antoniamalchik.com.

Runaway Mom

snowglobe
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Angel Sands Gunn

As I drive around the blind corner past the red barn, gravel shoots behind the wheels of my car. The kids clamor for the radio to be louder, and then they descend into bickering. Clinging to the steering wheel, I am suddenly struck by the notion that my life seems surreal. Like I am not even here. When a school bus appears at the turn, I swerve. A cloud of dust envelops my car. I stomp the brakes.

“Don’t fight while I’m driving.” I pant towards the back seat. “It’s dangerous.”

The problem is not with my family. It’s with my thinking. I have been frustrated trying to re-enter the world after ten years home with children, and I feel guilt for my desires. Like I have to choose between achievement and family. However, even my family feels on the edge of a breakdown.

•••

Valentine’s Day was a disaster. Edward and I fought and decided not to bother going out. Since then, we can’t talk about even the most mundane topics without fighting.

“Orange tiles? For a bathroom?”

“You said you liked the ones in the subway.”

We’re renovating the house. It’s a big project, and I keep resisting. With kids in school full-time now, I don’t like the house to be my main project. Even thinking the word “housewife” makes me cringe. I imagine our house sitting atop my chest, like I’m the Wicked Witch of the West. The house contains all the mundane tasks and chores that never end and seem to be my sole purpose in life.

Edward tells me how the tiles used in the subway are different from the product called “subway tiles,” that the name came from another association. When he slams his computer shut, I wonder how we got here again. I tell him that I’m not fighting. I don’t even care. He can do everything his way. Count me in. The girls come into the room demanding a snack.

“Please get it yourselves. You aren’t toddlers.”

After a few minutes, they start fighting, too. I send them to their rooms and lock myself in the bathroom. Suddenly, I’m throwing things: saline solution, toothpaste, lotions. Perfumed liquids splatter on the wall, the floor. I smell the sticky sweetness of beauty products. I throw them out thinking how useless they’ve been.

Gray hair hangs in my eyes as I sprawl on the cement floor. There was a time when I was an actress, scholar, professional. I won awards and scholarships. Didn’t I? Now, even my meager volunteer efforts doing grant writing for the kids’ school have been thwarted. A paid position became available, and the administration didn’t even ask if I was interested. Not that I want that kind of work. I don’t know what I want. But it still hurt.

My heart pounds against the floor. I think of the burden of unfulfilled potential. I remember a college class I took called “Sociology of the Sex Roles.” We read Naomi Wolf, Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan. I never imagined I could be like one of the women profiled in Friedan’s study of housewives, The Feminine Mystique. I remember thinking those women unenlightened, living in the shadow of husbands and forfeited careers, aspiring to nothing but successful children and domestic harmony. The study showed that many of the women suffered from depression, despite their domestic good fortune—their healthy children and pampered life. Friedan called it “the problem that has no name.” I never thought it could happen to me, but today, lying on this bathroom floor, I know. I’ve got it.

•••

I get up, clean the mess, and let Edward in the bathroom. He supports the idea of my taking a break. We decide that I should go to the Catskills, where we spend the summers. Five days will be the longest that I have been away from the family since my oldest was born, ten years ago. Since then, I haven’t really worked, except writing, which is more than work to me. It’s my lifeline.

My younger daughter, Beth, tells me she will not hug me when I return. She juts out her bottom lip, making the saddest face I have ever seen.

“You can’t go.”

“I’ll miss you.” Harper, my older daughter, sighs. “Did you tell Dad about piano…and soccer?”

•••

After I take them to school, I follow iPhone directions to the Catskills. It feels good to be on a road trip. I used to drive eight hours alone from Memphis to Chicago during college. I savor the thought of having hours and then days, alone. I listen to Grand Ole Opry recordings, research for my novel, set in the 1930s.

Somewhere in West Virginia, I stop to get gas. A man glances at me, and I see myself as he must, a woman on the highway alone, traveling with a little dog. Beth wanted to keep the golden retriever, her best companion, and it was the least I could do. But the Jack Russell in the passenger seat offers me no protection. I refrain from my habitual smile and return the nozzle to the pump. The sky looms heavy and gray. Snow is forecast for the region after five, but surely I will be there by then.

“Three hundred eighty-six miles on I-81 North,” the robot-female instructs, as I take the ramp back to the highway. My dashboard dings, and a snowflake appears next to the temperature reading. Thirty-eight degrees. Clouds gather over white-tipped mountains in the distance. I pass over dry pavement through Maryland to Pennsylvania when my iPhone beeps.

A low battery warning appears on the screen. I drive with one hand and search the glove compartment, doors, console, and back seat pockets. I picture the car charger, still new in the box, sitting on my closet shelf.

I get off at a Starbucks somewhere near Chambersburg. They might sell chargers. Haven’t I seen them alongside the coffee presses and CDs? The warm coffee smells like burnt cinnamon. I push my lips through steamed milk, fluffy and dense like snow clouds. I ask the clerk, but there’re no chargers for sale here. She sends me down the commercial road, looking for a large gas station or maybe a Radio Shack. An hour later, after buying and returning two incompatible chargers, I panic. It’s already four. I’ve lost too much time. I plug the third charger into the lighter outlet. Finally, a lightning bolt illumines the screen.

Back on 81, I drive thirty minutes, and traffic stops. An Oversize Load has fallen off a trailer. Police and several bulky men wearing orange vests wave flags and clear debris. Apparently, somebody thought it was a good idea to move an entire house from one place to another, rather than buy a new one.

As I progress into the mountainous region of Pennsylvania, I listen to news on the radio and notice snow on the roadside. The pavement seems wet but not icy. Cars keep up their usual pace, and I continue with my cruise control at seventy. However, it’s getting dark, and clouds seem to descend from the sky. Fog appears on the road.

I reassure myself that salt trucks have certainly already done their work. I am in the North now. They are used to this kind of weather. The temperature on my dashboard registers thirty-three, and traffic slows. I put on my hazard lights and search for my fog light. I turn off the chattering radio and listen to the sound of my wipers. An icy film develops on my windshield.

Taillights disappear into whiteness. I slow to thirty. I don’t see cars ahead of me, but occasionally an eighteen-wheeler appears from behind. I think how these heavy trucks can’t stop quickly downhill or on turns and, especially, on ice. I search for an exit. Coffee still coats my tongue. Patches of ice appear, and fog threatens to swallow my car whole. I grip the steering wheel and stare into the blinding white.

Then, it occurs to me. I am running away. I think of my grandmother crawling out the window, leaving only a note behind. “You’ll be better off without me.” I never understood how she could leave my mom and her two young siblings. I have wondered what urgent desire, need for self-preservation, or depression propelled her over that windowsill.

I remember a black and white photo of my grandmother from around the time she left. She leans against a rail, in a tailored suit. She has coiffed dark hair and a broad smile lined in lipstick. Her pale eyes beam and her body is posed like someone she must’ve seen in a magazine. She kicks her foot out to the side, lifts her chin. She must have been young, maybe thirty, perhaps on her way to work at the department store. Nobody would know from looking at her that she had abandoned her children.

My bones ache, and I panic at the thought that maybe I am programmed for flight, genetically doomed to do what my grandmother did, despite my best efforts to the contrary.

I have tried to be a good mother but, now, with my daughters in school, not needing me like they once did, I’m flailing. Edward supports what I want to do but no longer needs my financial contribution. At this point, I think I’m more useful to the family at home, and I want to write anyway. But I feel like a dependent, a child myself, and I can’t see the road to my future. It feels impenetrable. Like this fog.

Suddenly, a truck appears behind me, close to my bumper. I accelerate, afraid to move into the other lane, the one on the edge of the road, overlooking the valley. The truck passes and disappears again, like an apparition. A bell rings, and a digital snowflake blinks on my dash. On the road, a yellow sign reflects my headlights.

“Bridge May Be Icy.”

I cross onto wet steel. I can picture moisture freezing to crusty white ice, propelling my car into the cold river below.

I imagine the dog going down with me under icy waters. Perhaps trapped in the car. I wonder at what point we would look at each other and give up, conscious but unable to escape.

I’ll do better. Please.

The prayer slips out, a plea to God, in exchange for my life.

I try to focus on the road, which is no longer visible. I drive in a cloud, feeling motionless, though my dial says twenty miles per hour. I slow to ten, searching for pavement, for a sliver of grey.

An exit sign pops into view. The shiny, green metal points me to a side road. Finally, I am motionless, for a moment, at a stop sign. I heave a gasping cry. My relief is replaced by anxiety again as I drive, still in mountains, still swallowed by fog, until I finally come to a restaurant.

Inside, the waitress leaves the bar where truckers sit with beers and tells me about a motel nearby.

“It’s so foggy.” My speech feels slurred, and my knees shake, but I’m glad to be talking to another person.

“It gets like that here.” She wipes the window and points the way.

In the motel room, I call home. I tell them about the fog and not to worry. I’ll be back in five days.

•••

Later, in the Catskills, I re-read The Feminine Mystique. In one chapter, Friedan discusses an article written for McCall’s in 1956—“The Mother Who Ran Away.” It was after the war, and people idealized domestic life for women. When the story of a wife leaving her family earned the highest readership of any article the magazine had ever run, the editors were shocked. They had no idea so many women identified with the heroine’s discontent. One editor proclaimed, “It was our moment of truth.”

This moment is mine. Alone in the Catskills, I put down the worn paperback. Snow falls outside the window, adding to the blanket of snow that already rises above the porch. I consider how Friedan faced criticism for expressing the plight of only some women—the white, heterosexual, educated upper-middle-class ones. Feminism changed, somewhat, through the sixties and seventies, to be more inclusive and to address a broad range of women’s issues. Despite Friedan’s omissions and the differences in our times, I am surprised at the similarities I share with these women, interviewed fifty years ago.

“I have talked about it being an American woman’s problem, how you give up a career for children, and then you reach a point where you can’t go back,” Freidan wrote. “It is frightening when a woman finally realizes that there is no answer to the question ‘who am I’ except the voice inside herself.”

Her advice speaks to me, and I know I must answer the question I have buried for ten years. I am not my grandmother or the women from Friedan’s book or even the young woman I once was. But, now that the fog has cleared, I can see a path.

The lamp penetrates the grey day, casting a circle of yellow light. The smell of coffee wraps around me. I open my computer to my sprawling novel. I focus in, editing. The tapping of keys soothes me, words falling like footsteps across the page.

•••

ANGEL SANDS GUNN lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband and two daughters. She has been published on Literary Mama and The Voices Project. She also writes for Edible Blue Ridge Magazine and recently attended the Appalachian Writers Workshop. She is working on a novel about a West Virginia family during The Great Depression.